Cyrus C. Malek looks at the interplay between politics and sport in Spain - something that has seemingly always been the case and forever will be...
Celebrating a well-taken goal against Deportivo La Coruña in a Copa del Rey match, Sevilla's Frederic Kanouté lifted his club's shirt to reveal a second shirt with the Spanish 'Palestina' and the Arabic, 'Phillistine' (فلسطين) emblazoned across the chest in a public cry of protest against the atrocities being committed in Gaza. While the Spanish Football Federation fined the player a hefty 3,000 euros, Kanouté, a native of Mali and a follower of Islam, has won much praise from many quarters for using his position on the pitch as a stage for socio-political commentary. The Palestinian Embassy released a statement thanking the striker for providing an inspiration for Palestinian children, Barcelona's Pep Guardiola has publicly condemned the fine as excessive and voiced his own condemnation of the massacre, and Iranian first division club Zob Ahan Isfahan has even offered to pay the player's fine as a tribute to the cause.
Politics is no stranger to Spanish football. Throughout its lifetime on the Iberian Peninsula, football has been inexorably linked to the political events of the era. No saga more infamous, of course, than the politically-charged rift between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
The Spanish Civil War, Generalissimo Francisco Franco's rise to power, and Spain's eventual transition to democracy (or more precisely, a constitutional monarchy) are marked by the blood rivalry -in the very real sense of the expression- between Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona. During the first month of the Spanish Civil war, Barça's politically left-leaning president, Josep Sunyol, was murdered by the Falangistas (the Nationalist military movement) and Spanish football became a symbolic forum for the political ideologies of the day.
Barcelona, which was already the ensign for the progressive movements of fashion, food, architecture, and art, became the symbol for progressive politics—the resistance against the oppression of dictatorial government. With the banning of the Catalán, Gallego (Galician), and Euskera (Basque) languages under the fascist regime, one of the few places that Catalán could be spoken freely (and safely) was in the Barça stadium. Adopting the Catalán motto, 'Més que un club', FC Barcelona became 'more than a club' in its encounters against Real Madrid, the club associated with the oppressive rule of the capitol government.
How close the ties between the Madrid club and Franco's fascist government were in actuality remains ambiguous to say the very least, but the arrival of Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stéfano at the Bernabéu remains a near-undisputed instance of political influence. Wholly left out of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, a war-torn and impoverished Spain was under Franco's all but total control. Had Di Stéfano signed for Barcelona, the public attention would have shifted toward Spain's gateway to free-thinking democratic ideals and thus the necessary strings were pulled to have Di Stéfano, a player of unmatched talent, call the Spanish capital home.
While some (perhaps not completely unwarranted) claims are made that the government played a more direct role in footballing affairs by influencing referees to favour Madrid in domestic matches, one cannot deny the unsurpassed superiority of Di Stéfano's Madrid that won 5 consecutive titles on the European stage—beyond the scope of Franco's "influence". Nonetheless, the stigma remained throughout the latter half of the 20th century and footballing great Johan Cruyff chose Barça over Real Madrid stating that he could not play for a club associated with Franco.
Since the years of fascism, the historical rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona has assumed a less dual role with respect to political implications. But the sphere of politics still envelops Spain's football clubs in regional disputes. The issues of political/social autonomy from the central government and distribution of resources (e.g. high speed trains) across the Spanish country remain contentious talking points, especially for the Galician, Basque, and Catalunyan provinces. Where Catalán, Gallego, and Euskera were once banned under Franco, now the first language taught in schools are those of their respective provinces. As a result, Spanish is taught for only a few hours a week and the children of Spanish-speakers in these provinces have limited options of studying Castilian Spanish. These tensions lend a distinctly political flavour to matches featuring Barça, the Galician Deportivo La Coruña, or the Basque Athletic Bilbao.
Of course the famous Athletic Bilbao have taken the devotion to their unique situation a step further by only employing Basque players (it is worth noting that the ethno-political ties run so deep, that Athletic captain, Joseba Etxeberria has pledged to forego his wages and play next season, his last as a professional, for free). While the all-Basque roster has seen a few exceptions to the rule (now players of Basque origin can play for Athletic, just as long as they acquired their skills in the Basque Country), one can imagine the sort of tension that might have surrounded a match during the 90s when the Basque militant group ETA was at at its height. As an aside, there is something to be said for Athletic Bilbao's impressive feat of having remained contentious in La Primera for so long despite such a limited talent pool from which to fish.
Back in Madrid, the country's two main political parties, the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and the socialist Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), have footballing connections as well. PSOE leader and Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero is an ardent Barcelona supporter and makes public predictions for El Clásico while his predecessor, José María Aznar of the PP, has even been linked to the Real Madrid presidency in the upcoming summer elections. On the northern edge of Madrid, the regional disputes between the central government and the semi-autonomous provinces make their home at the royal governing body of football, the Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF) where debates are periodically held on whether Catalunya and the other provinces should be able to compete in international competitions as separate entities from La Roja, the Spanish national team. And not so far away from the Bernabéu, Spanish sports daily Marca, a publication first printed as an iconic form of propaganda for Franco's Falange, now exposes the obstruction of democratic principles as Ramón Calderón was forced to resign in a scandal involving the rigging of votes at Real Madrid's general Assembly.
One of the greatest beauties of Spanish football lies in the fact that its purview is not solely limited to a vessel of entertainment. In a country with a tumultuous history, where language itself was oppressed and women could not open a bank account until 1975, the sport transcends sport, serving as both an implicit and explicit conduit for political and cultural expression. As more foreign players bring their diversity of backgrounds and political views to La Liga, it seems fitting that the political debate would take the next step to the global stage. In the case of Freddy Kanouté's gesture, one can only speculate how the act contributed in raising awareness and mobilizing over 250,000 Spaniards at the midweek, from Madrid to Málaga, to take part in the largest pro-Palestinian demonstration in Europe. The beautiful game, indeed.